HASKELL (AP) — For Christmas this year, Allie Hobby, who turns 4 in February, wanted her own horse — one that she could ride in local rodeos.
So when Allie’s Papaw — or "Pa" for short — heard about a Nov. 19 horse auction in Saline County, the family made plans to attend.
This wasn’t a typical auction, however.
Earlier this year, when the Arkansas Department of Correction retired nearly 100 horses from its prison-farm herds, the agency decided to offer the public a chance to buy the animals.
Some of the horses’ lineage could be traced back to legendary sire Joe Hancock, a large quarter horse that became a match-racing sensation in Texas during the first half of the 1900s. Hancock sired 15 foal crops that produced 155 registered foals.
Pa — also known as Tom Jackson of Lonoke County — found an advertisement about the auction in a horse magazine.
"We’re gonna give this a shot," he declared.
His wife, Carolyn — oras Allie calls her, "Nanny" — agreed.
So on Nov. 18, little Allie arrived at the Saline County Fairgrounds to look for her Christmas horse.
Pa, Nanny and Allie’s mother, Pepper Hobby of Haskell, accompanied her.
As they looked around, Pepper saw a palomino go by.
"Nanny, that one catches my eye," Pepper recalled saying.
The blond horse caught Allie’s eye, too.
A few minutes later, the family found the man running the auction and told him they were looking for a horse that Allie could handle.
"I’ll show you one," they said he declared and headed straight toward that palomino.
Her name was Sugar Cube. Allie was enchanted.
"We put Allie on her, and Allie rode her basically the whole day," Pepper said.
The prison inmate who saddled up the horse for Allie was patient. He spent much of the day checking on the horse and his young charge, who had golden ringlets and scuffed boots.
When finally persuaded to dismount, Allie turned to her mother and announced, "This is my horse."
But Pepper fretted. Another woman seemed extremely interested in the palomino. And from what the woman said, Pepper was pretty sure she would be a tough opponent during bidding.
As the family left the fairgrounds, they could only hope that they would be able to afford Allie’s Christmas horse.
The next day, Pa, Nanny, Pepper and Allie returned for the auction. This time, Allie’s dad, Nathan, joined them.
Nanny, whose favorite accessory is a camera that dangles perpetually from her wrist, chronicled everything from the moment Allie got her number — 36 — to the auction’s end.
The family sat in the front row.
When the palomino came out, the opening bid was $250.
Allie lifted her auction paddle and never once dropped it, even as the bids rose.
At one point, the Lonoke County sheriff became her biggest competitor. Later, the abashed lawman told the family that if he’d known a little girl was the other bidder, he wouldn’t have kept going, they said.
But Allie was tenacious, and when no one sought to best her $1,100 bid, the crowd went wild.
"Sold!" the auctioneer crowed, "To the little lady in the front row!"
Allie shrieked: "I got my horse!"
After the auction, Allie spotted the prison inmate who had assisted her the day before.
"Thank you," she said, impulsively hugging him.
Moments later, the inmate pulled Nanny aside.
"When I saw that price going up and you leveled off, well, $50 is all I have, but I would have put it on that little lady and that horse," he told her.
Dina Tyler, assistant director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, said everyone from inmates to staff members had been rooting for Allie.
"This is such a sweet tale of what can happen when little girl meets a big horse," she said.
Tyler said the department sold 82 horses through the auction. The sales brought in $35,000, which far exceeded everyone’s hopes, she added.
"ADC plans to make the auction an annual event and to put more of the younger horses on the block. There were some doubters who thought only a handful of folks would show up to buy, but they’re singing a different tune now.
"We sold the horses to trim our herd, but we didn’t want them to end up at the packing house.
"They are good horses who have served the state well, and they deserve good homes. I believe they all found one."
Allie has since ridden Sugar in a rodeo put on by the Southern Junior Rodeo Association. Because of her age, she was led around the barrels by her mother.
But sitting atop her golden horse with a braided mane and ribbons, Allie was just as thrilled as if she’d raced through the arena all on her own.
Someday, she will do just that, Pa predicts.
"She’s pretty," Allie cooed recently, petting Sugar as she fed her. "I like her so much."
"This is Allie’s gift," Nanny said as she watched a placid Sugar wander her new grassy field in Haskell.
Then she added: "But it’s Sugar’s gift, too. This is her retirement."